Everything in Moderation

Canadian intellectual John Ralston Saul in conversation with Brian Easton about globalism, ideologues and rediscovering moderation.

The full edited version.

Listener: September 10, 2005.

Keywords: Globalisation & Trade; History of Ideas, Methodology & Philosophy;

EASTON: You are a very cosmopolitan person. Canadian father and British mother. You have a degree in French from London, you’ve worked in Paris. You have a Chinese-Canadian wife. You’ve written successful novels as well as international bestsellers on contemporary issues, beginning with “Voltaire’s Bastards”, through another three to your latest, “The Collapse of Globalism”. Yet you seem to be a Canadian nationalist

SAUL: The non-ideological reality is that people come from somewhere. It is an impossible romantic dream that you can be from nowhere. I’ve always believed that the way human beings really live is that they come from somewhere and it colours or shapes the roots of what they think and then you try to find how that fits into the common good.

Your “Reflection of a Siamese Twin” explores Canada’s national identity. You said, “Some countries such as Canada are on the leading edge of how to build a society with a constantly evolving set of citizens and cultures.” That’s a claim New Zealand might want to make, too.

Canada and New Zealand are in a small group of countries that have decided they want immigration and they want the immigrants to be citizens. The approach is part of positive nationalism. It’s a theory that is both international and national at the same time. A Canadian Prime Minister, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, said, keep what you are, protect what you are, but also become something new.

You have to be relaxed, you have to give people the time to adjust. That is getting away from that awful purist nationalism of “now that you’re here, you’re this”. Rather, “On the day you become a citizen, you inherit the total history of the country.” It’s not a buffet table. You don’t get to choose the good stuff and the bad stuff. You have to help work the whole thing out. In addition, you bring all this new stuff with you. This may create new problems, but it may also help us deal with what we’re working with in our past. You keep the old and you build onto the new.

The last time we seriously tried to do that was just before the 16th-century wars of religion. This is both hopeful that we’re back at it again, and frightening because it failed last time. We have an astonishing opportunity to undo the damage that started with the wars of religion and to really re-embrace the humanist idea of complexity and multi-level ideas of belonging in a sophisticated internationalism. I find people very relaxed about multiplicity. It is the elite who created negative nationalism.

It’s really all about balance. Today’s ideological positions are such that when you make moderate statements, you find yourself treated by the ideologues as being romantic, backward, dangerous, extremist. My whole discourse – it goes through my novels as well – is all about the nature of moderation, the nature of choice, of multi possibilities. The point is – this takes me back to the idea of positive nationalism – you can’t have choice if you don’t have a mechanism for choosing. The economic-led theory removes the possibility of a rooted citizen making choices that give directions to governments.

One of the most important decisions indicating the new direction that the world is taking is the recently internationally agreed to Cultural Diversity Convention. In 1995, culture was included in the World Trade Organisation. Commercial tribunals started saying that subsidising magazines was an unfair trade practice. Now, you have the right to protect your Maori culture without it being treated as a subsidy.

This agreement removes culture from economics. I don’t mean there is no economics in culture, but it is no longer the prism through which we see culture. You remove whole sectors of civilisation from economics as a primary means of identifying them. You say culture exists in its own right. It’s pretty self evident, but that wasn’t the case in 1995.

Your book “The Doubter’s Companion” is an excellent introduction to your thinking. It rejects the notion that the globalist’s economy is inevitable. That is really what your new book is about, isn’t it?

An ideologue tells you that you must see the world through something very specific. Everything then is filtered, sifted, limited or defined by that prism. Globalism as we have experienced in the past two to three decades is about seeing everything through the economic prism.

We have an opportunity, because the ideologues of the past 25 years have run out of steam. One of our biggest problems is that politically, but also in the administrative forums, we are surrounded by people who made their careers on the basis of the inevitability argument and all the language that goes with it. They don’t have the imagination to change vocabulary. So they are preventing us from dealing with what is before us. The ability to change your mind in public is a sign of intelligence.

The G8 has now written off the debt of 18 countries. What they can’t bring themselves to say is, “We could have done it this way in the 1980s.” The reason they did not do it then was that they believed in the argument of inevitability. They actually are better than they think. They are no longer acting like castrati; they’ve got their balls back.

Your new book quotes New Zealand all out of proportion to our importance (but totally in line with our self-importance). You’ve used New Zealand as an example of people who have changed their mind, haven’t you?

In a way, yes. It doesn’t mean that you’ve abandoned the international marketplace or that you don’t want to trade or that you’ve become protectionist. It means that you’ve decided again that you can set policies that will work for New Zealand.

It’s all about being moderately sensible. People have lost the habit of moderate thought. Can we get to the point of emotional and intellectual being where the ability to assume moderation is no longer considered extreme?

Let’s use some really basic words like “dignity”, which is what you have to have. We have to belong somewhere because it is one of the ways that people feel they know themselves. It’s a form of dignity. You don’t get dignity from a sort of floating construction of wealth.

The most interesting conversation that is not taking place is that almost all of our economic theory was based on the civilisation of scarcity of production. Today, we’re in surplus in almost every way. And that is at the heart of what is not functioning.

I know people who made their fortune by the time they were 45, when they sold their businesses. They don’t know what to do. The reason they don’t know is because they’re not rooted any more. Is my approach 19th-century nationalism? No. Is it a humanist concept of belonging to society? Yes. Is that what allows you to build some sort of international arrangement? Yes.

I’ve got one last question that comes from journalists. How come your wife, who is a journalist, became the Canadian Governor-General?

The new one who’s just been named is also a journalist, a 48-year-old woman immigrant – a refugee from Haiti. As is her husband and he is a philosopher.

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The full edited version.